Framing leadership for co-operative higher education

Framework for co-operative higher education. Poster design by Sam Randall, student at University of Lincoln.
Framework for co-operative higher education. Poster design by Sam Randall, student at University of Lincoln.

In a recent and related project, we have developed the above illustrated framework for co-operative higher education. In this and future posts we want to situate co-operative leadership, governance and management within the context of the framework.

An abstract and dynamic framework

Our earlier research, funded by the Independent Social Research Foundation, was conducted as action research through a series of five workshops that focused on a set of themes we had identified for discussing co-operative higher education. In our initial analysis of the workshop data, we attempted to abstract and synthesise from it a conceptual framework for co-operative higher education. Our method was both deductive and inductive, applying existing concepts from our earlier related work, as well as identifying new concepts that came out of the workshops, subsequent focus groups and interviews. The framework is therefore not only proposed as the basis of co-operative development but also the result of theory and practice identified throughout our research. We have grouped the concepts into six parts of the framework which, after some deliberation, we arranged into concentric circles to represent outwards movement and contracting tension between the centre and the outer circles.

The framework is held together by the contradictory relationship of labour and property, the most basic categories of political economy. This ‘capital relation’ is a source of dynamic energy and of destructive crises, of wealth and impoverishment, that historically, has been partially contained by the distinction between ‘private and public‘ (i.e. Money and the State), a dichotomy that we find unhelpful and increasingly problematic. We emphasise the concept of the ‘social’ as the dissolution and overcoming of this ‘false dichotomy’.

Trying to move away from this dichotomy (though recognising that it still exists), we establish three primary categories that we refer to as a ‘universal model’. It is universal because each of the categories are deemed applicable to whatever form co-operative higher education might take. There is no ‘blueprint’ but the ‘universal model’ is what distinguishes co-operative higher education from a more general use of the term ‘co-operative’. By co-operative higher education we are not simply referring to ‘cooperative learning’ but instead the model situates the social intellect in an organisational setting that is rooted in the social history of the co-operative movement.

Next, we identify five ‘catalytic principles’, which closely relate to the five previous workshop themes but have been modified to reflect better the breadth of ideas that were discussed. Those principles are put into practice via one of three ‘routes’ to co-operative higher education, which we identified from the literature and that were used and discussed throughout our series of workshops. Finally, we propose three ‘transitional themes’ that would constitute major on-going projects for the organisation, integrated into its sense of mission and purpose and interpreted in ways that are meaningful to the co-operative’s members. They are intended to encompass the desires and hopes of the research participants by focusing on the co-operative production of social knowledge, the building of solidarity through co-operative institutions, and the movement towards a new form of social wealth, beyond the “determinate logic” of value (Postone, 1993, 285).

We have chosen to illustrate our proposed framework for co-operative higher education by adopting the aesthetic and principles of Vorticism, the modernist art movement of the early 20th century that grew out of Cubism and in response to Futurism.  The vortex provides a more compelling illustration of the explosive dynamic energy contained within the capital relation than the structural functionalist ‘base-superstructure’ analogy that is used by traditional Marxism. Vorticism appeals to us, not least because of its use of abstraction, but because of the artists’ attempts to incorporate a sense of movement into their painting and sculpture through the use of angular and contrapuntal lines. This desire for dynamism is not surprising given the period that Vorticism was directly responding to: the social turmoil of the industrial revolution; the fragility of bourgeois subjectivity; and the destruction of the First World War. It must be emphasised that a sense of colour and movement in our illustration is essential to what could otherwise be interpreted as a static framework, and the always immanent contradiction of the capital relation at the centre of the framework is a reminder of the ever-present crisis of capitalism. We recognise that co-operatives have always been a response to and existed within the social world of capitalism, yet are mindful that early co-operators saw their activities as the means towards a post-capitalist form of common social wealth.

Leadership, governance and management

Our current research project, funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, focuses on “co-operative leadership as a viable organisational form of governance and management for Higher Education.” Furthermore, “a significant outcome of the research will be to develop a co-operative leadership tool (CLT) for  Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to audit the extent of co-operative provision in HEIs and to assess if a co-operative leadership model is viable within an institution. The tool will be based on a set of catalytic principles that distinguish co-operative enterprises: ownership, democracy, autonomy, independence and social value, in the context of practicalpragmatic and political possibilities.”

The ‘catalytic principles’ listed in the quote from our project description were earlier, more tentative concepts that were subsumed into the later framework illustrated above. We have not abandoned them, but incorporated them into a more encompassing set of catalytic principles that remain “practical, pragmatic and political” throughout. The ‘co-operative leadership tool’ that we aim to develop is primarily aimed at recognising practices in existing universities and therefore assists with both the ‘conversion’ and ‘dissolution’ routes identified in the framework.

The illustrated framework is intended to complement existing research on co-operatives and higher education and we anticipate it being extended to include other more specific conceptual frameworks and empirical research e.g. Neary and Winn, 2009 (Knowledge); Bacon, 2014; Bernstein, 2012; Novkovic and Miner, 2015 (Democracy); DuGay, 2000 (Bureaucracy); Ridley-Duff, 2015 (Livelihood); Develtere, 1996; Curl, 2010 (Solidarity), etc. Needless to say, each of the co-operative values and principles are either explicitly included in the framework or their mapping can easily be recognised.

In the next two posts (here and here), we discuss examples of existing work by Bacon (2014) and Bernstein (2012) that informs our current research and extends the framework for co-operative higher education in practical ways.

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